The year is 2011. The year remembered for the Arab spring, Tebowing, Will and Kate’s royal wedding, and the loss of Apple’s Steve Jobs. The year the Packers were crowned Super Bowl champs, the St. Louis Cardinals took the World Series, the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat for the NBA Championship and the Boston Bruins claimed the Stanley Cup. The year is 2011. The year that the dark cloud of NCAA allegations swept over Coral Gables.
The year when Ponzi-schemer Nevin Shapiro came out with his stories that incriminated UM athletics personnel and players in unethical situations, compromising NCAA regulations. In his open letter to President Donna Shalala published in Sports Illustrated, Alexander Wolff suggested a lack of institutional control of the athletic department.
A moment in Hurricane history when the media and public attention could not be more negative.
Enter Coach Jim Larrañaga.
On April 22, 2011, Larrañaga became the University of Miami men’s basketball program’s 12th head coach and unknowingly stepped into the swirling madness of allegations and scandal aftermath.
Coach Jim Larrañaga sits down for an interview with reporters. (Photo by Kristen Spillane)
“After we found out about the NCAA investigation, I basically ignored it. Doesn’t affect us, we weren’t here when it happened, we’re not going to change any of our plans based on that, we’re going to continue to do what we’ve always done,” said Larrañaga.
“I thought the players responded very well to that…‘You guys can’t do anything about this, the only thing we can control is the way we build this program and you guys are a major part of that, let’s do it the right way’ and they did.”
In his first season at the helm for the Hurricanes, Larrañaga coached his squad to a 20-13 record. Doing so, Larrañaga became the first Miami head coach to record 20 wins in his inaugural season in Coral Gables.
Thought that was a good show? Fast forward to the year two.
What started with a home exhibition loss to St. Leo’s, flourished into an unprecedented season of success, chock full of firsts, bests and accolades.
“It was a fun ride, really incredible. We just tried to enjoy every moment, especially having so many seniors, just enjoying that last time that we have to play together, I think we made the most of it,” said graduating senior Julian Gamble of the fairytale season.
Sophomore point guard Shane Larkin echoed his sentiments.
“It was cool, just to be like the little underdogs that nobody knew about,” said Larkin, “Just Miami basketball, a football school, trying to make an impact in basketball and for us to just have the type of season we had, to just beat the teams we beat, the way we beat them at home, and for everybody to start camping out for games, just the whole country kind of got behind us, and that was pretty cool.”
From Larrañaga’s first year on the job to the Hurricanes’ winning-most season to date, the roster, for the most part, remained the same, losing just two seniors to graduation, DeQuan Jones and Ryan Quigtar.
The 2012-13 roster was fueled by experienced seniors including ACC Defensive Player of the Year Durand Scott and standout sophomore point guard Larkin, bound for the 2013 NBA Draft.
So what elevated the ‘Canes to an ACC championship and NCAA Sweet Sixteen-destined season? To Coach Larrañaga, the distinction came in three simple steps: attitude, commitment and experience.
“We had a much better attitude and were much more confident coming into year two. They made a far greater commitment, stayed here all summer, got in much better shape, spent a lot of time in the weight room getting stronger, spent a lot of time on the court getting to know each other better,” said Larrañaga.
“And I’d say lastly, experience. We had the experience now that the coaches knew the players and the players knew what the coaches wanted and there was much more of a sense of trust and understanding. You know, I think before you can trust someone you kind of have to know where they’re coming from and we needed to build that relationship up.”
But Larrañaga’s impact on the University of Miami is felt even after the last whistle of practice, outside the lines of the hardwood court and beyond the BankUnited Center in Coral Gables.
What Coach L did with those thirteen players brought a university and a community out of the negativity of NCAA issues and into the spotlight of the game of basketball.
When the student body of a “football school” is camping overnight for tickets, you know you are doing something right. When five major home games are completely sold out, you know you are definitely doing something right.
“I think Coach Larrañaga has brought a lot of excitement to the campus, and it really made the spring exciting for everyone,” said University of Miami President Donna Shalala, “and what is most impressive is the number of students that came to the games and the effort that the coach personally made with his players to get students to come to the games, and so what he really brought was a lot of fun.”
Whether it was the “dorm storming” deliveries of chicken wings and pizza, the rising popularity of ‘Canes youth basketball camps, to the establishment of the community-driven ‘Cane Nation program, Larrañaga certainly created the buzz he was looking for.
In the 2012-13 season, Miami posted capacity crowds of 7,972 fans in sellout wins over Florida State (1/27), No. 1 Duke (1/23), North Carolina (2/9), Virginia (2/19), Clemson (3/9) and marked the first time in program history that there have been back-to-back sellouts at the BankUnited Center and five games in the same season.
The 2012-13 campaign also crushed student attendance records, with the most games attracting 1,200 or more students (5). Throughout the season, the ‘Canes encroached upon record student average attendance and cumulative season student attendance. In years passed, the average student attendance was 641 per game, while Coach L and his team upped that average to about 770 per game this season.
“It’s huge to know that what you’re doing is worthwhile, and that you’re doing it for more than just yourself. It motivates you to have people behind you, you don’t want to let them down,” said Larrañaga, “we explained to them, we need to build a community, and we need to be very inclusive, we need to create a family atmosphere, and that starts with the university community- the students, the faculty, the administration.”
Larrañaga brought one of the most diverse college campuses together over the course of one successful basketball season, a feat normally reserved for the highest of occasions.
“I think it’s wonderful and that’s the point you made, it brings the community together,” said Shalala. “It brings our alums, our supporters all over the country, our students, our faculty, our staff. Sports are the only thing other than commencement that brings everybody together and so it’s a wonderful bonding for the university and it brings enthusiasm and good humor and all those other good things.”
For Coach L, that is exactly what students should be gaining the most from at the University of Miami. Living the college experience and connecting to the community they are a part of.
“What we believe is that the college experience should include things outside of the classroom that will provide you great memories for a very long time. To be a part of something bigger than yourself,” said Larrañaga, “so if you’re a student and you go to class and you get an education, but you don’t meet friends, you don’t develop relationships, if you don’t get involved in any other outside entities, you’re really limiting your experiences.”
“If the students come to games, and they cheer and then all of a sudden there is a connection and you develop a sense of school spirit and even after you’ve graduated you feel connected to the university. Whether it’s the football program, the men’s basketball program, the women’s basketball program, any of the other…it could be the chess club or the band or any of those things make you feel more connected to the other members of your student life,” added Larrañaga.
The students in uniform felt the support and inclusion too, in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“It had a huge impact, I mean I think that’s what really fueled us especially when we played these home games and have near sellouts for the majority of the season and have five sellouts toward the end, it really upped our home court advantage and that’s something that you want as a player playing on the court,” said Gamble.
“It gives you a lot of energy and makes you perform on a higher level and you have a lot more pride playing for your school when you know you have the whole community and the whole school behind you.”
“That played a huge, huge impact for us. We knew the type of support we were receiving wasn’t typical for the basketball team and they hadn’t usually supported us like that so we just wanted to play well for them, and the more fans that came out and supported us the more we want to win,” added Larkin.
“Just seeing people camp out the night before the Duke game and people making trips up to D.C. and Duke and to Carolina for the ACC Tournament it really just gave us a sense of pride, who we’re playing for, and just gave us a stronger will to win games.”
Around UM, those who know him best, the ins and outs of Coach L, are his players, and each one is thankful for the experience, patience and fun-loving demeanor he brings to the job, day in and day out.
“The way he goes about things is very methodical, he has a plan for everything. …Everybody has a defined role and he makes sure you know that role and gives you a lot of confidence in being able to perform at a high level doing your role and in that aspect it was just being a player’s coach,” said Gamble.
“He really does just try to relate to us and using his experience, he’s been coaching for 40 years, that experience really helps us in all these situations and just being poised and execute when the time comes.”
Beneath the x’s and o’s and statistics and strategy, Larrañaga is about keeping the game of basketball what it is: a game.
“He’s all about having fun, … he’s upbeat and he always has a positive outlook on everything,” said Larkin of his coach. “He takes charges before some games, he dives for loose balls, at his age doing what he’s going just kind of gets us really hyped and makes us loose so we don’t go out there tense and nervous, we just go out there ready to play.”
And who can forget the Muhammad Ali shuffle in the post-game locker room talk after the ‘Canes defeated Indiana to advance to the Sweet Sixteen? That right there is the level of fun and enthusiasm that Larrañaga represents.
“I think throughout the whole season we all had fun and throughout the ACC and NCAA Tournament, you see us rapping in the locker room, we just had a fun season and he definitely had a huge impact on that,” added Larkin.
Yet for Larrañaga, his ultimate idea of success does not end with the basketball season. When asked to reflect on recruiting and his rosters, Coach L says that his answer is always the same.
“Ask me in ten years when I’ve seen what they’ve accomplished” is Larrañaga’s standard response.
“They come here first for an education, and that education is on and off the court. They come here to prepare themselves for a life beyond basketball because even if they make it to the NBA or play professional basketball at some level for some time, that always ends. You don’t play basketball until you’re 60.”
Coming from a nationally recognized coach, whose career depends on maintaining a winning program, Larrañaga’s grounded ideals are a refreshing reminder of what matters most in collegiate athletics.
“Our responsibility as a coaching staff is to teach them life skills that will help them be successful no matter what they do. Whether they become a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman, a professional athlete, a schoolteacher, whatever their life has in store for them, we want to prepare them for that. The way we do that is through a lot of teaching,” said Larrañaga.
Since his arrival at the U, Coach Jim Larrañaga has made his presence known, as a coach, as a leader and a representative of the University of Miami.
“I think he’s a wonderful leader and I think he’ll have a great message for the students,” said Shalala. “He’s a quality coach with very high values and ethics, and that’s why we recruited him and he has just been an outstanding leader in our community.”
Larrañaga will address and offer advice to the 2013 graduating class at Friday’s College of Arts and Sciences and Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science combined commencement ceremony at the BankUnited Center. As with any message, whether is a pre-game pep talk or a post-game reflection, Larrañaga always conveys a vision of ambition for the future.
“My message to the students will be based on my own personal philosophy of how I’ve conducted my life and how I feel like the building blocks for anyone to be successful if you follow these guidelines, you can be successful,” said Larrañaga.
“No matter if you’re a basketball player or an engineering student because it’s all the same characteristics and ingredients to being successful in your life and being happy.”
“His genius is taking the kids that he has and turning them into a great team. So I’m sure it will be a challenge and it will be a lot of fun for all of the students on campus to see what the new team looks like.” — University of Miami President Donna Shalala. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Amore, Executive Director, University of Miami Media Relations)
Listen to Shane Larkin speak about Coach Larrañaga:
Watch Coach Larrañaga’s interview:
words and multimedia _ kristen spillane.